The Summer Peacebuilding Institute, offered by the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at EMU, continues to enrich and inspire. In previous posts I’ve considered justice from the perspective of both victims and offenders. Before discussing situations in which victims and offenders meet together in an effort to heal I’d like to offer some context by giving more background on the principles and values of Restorative Justice (RJ). To gain a better understanding Howard Zehr provides an excellent overview in The Little Book of Restorative Justice. You can also learn much from the Restorative Justice website.

I want to state up front that the criminal justice system in the United States serves several important functions (even when they are applied imperfectly). It denounces wrongdoing. It draws boundaries on acceptable behavior. It provides a system to identify those who do wrong. It establishes the rule of law and it protects due process and human rights. Traditional criminal justice is also adversarial. It’s like a boxing match. Traditional justice does not serve victims’ needs well, doesn’t effectively hold offenders truly accountable, or work to strengthen communities.

RJ seeks to address these weaknesses.

From The Little Book of Restorative Justice: criminal justice asks three questions. What laws have been broken? Who did it? What do they deserve? RJ asks three different questions. Who has been hurt? What are their needs? Whose obligations are these? The differences in these questions may appear small but, in fact, they are quite significant. And they make a significant difference in both approaches and outcomes when harm occurs.

RJ seeks to create a dialogue; to re-examine our assumptions about justice. RJ is a peacebuilding approach to justice. Peacebuilding is about building, maintaining, and mending healthy relationships. RJ begins with an old concept: wrongdoing is a violation of people and relationships. Violations create obligations. The central obligation is to repair harm and relationships. To achieve justice the true stakeholders must be involved in determining responsibilities and repairing the harm. In other words, the central focus is on victim needs and offender obligations.

A word of caution: RJ has become so popular recently that it has become a buzzword in many cases. It has been occasionally co-opted. In other words, some processes are called RJ when they aren’t. Some key questions to consider about any process to determine whether or not it is RJ include, does it address harm and causes of harm? Is it victim-oriented? Are offenders encouraged to take responsibility? Are all three stakeholder groups involved (victim, offender, and community)? Is there an opportunity for dialogue and participatory decision-making?

Research on RJ indicates high degrees of satisfaction, greater feelings of fairness, reduced victim fear, trauma and desire for revenge. Higher rates of restitution are achieved, there is a greater understanding of one another (empathy), and reduced rates of offending are achieved-especially for more serious crime. Significantly, more cases are brought to justice.

The most important thing I’ve learned is that Restorative Justice is not a rigid set of rules. There ain’t no dogma here. RJ is much more of a compass than a map. It points us in a general direction and requires the participation of stakeholders in a flexible process that will look different in different circumstances. I believe that RJ processes provide a much higher likelihood of healing harms and putting things as right as possible.

NEXT: We’ll look at a few RJ models; victims and offenders meeting. Witnessing these encounters on video are some of the most challenging moments of this week at EMU.